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Everything Tech Companies Should Know About Productivity Can Be Learned From Watching Mad Men

The fundamentals of Productivity haven't changed in 50 years.

The fundamentals of productivity haven’t changed in 50 years.

A couple years back, while binge watching Mad Men, I had a jarring realization- they were a bunch of drunks! No. Well, yes, but that’s for another blog post. The real light-bulb went on when I realized that nothing has changed at the office in 50 years. Longer even! It’s all the same fundamental actions, repeated day after day, year after year, decade after decade. Plato would recognize the patterns. Understanding this is crucial if you build or leverage common office tools & applications.

In today’s parlance, i’m talking about productivity- the term used by technology companies to describe the things you do in a professional setting, aka at the office. Of course, these days- the office can also mean your couch or on an airplane or your favorite cafe. Productivity itself encompasses a huge range of things- from developing proposals, to code, to creating designs, scripts, apps, widgets, gadgets, doo-hickeys and whatzits.

The epiphany I had while watching these suave ghosts of offices past brought lavishly to life is that we only really do four things while working. The big four are:

  • Create
  • Share
  • Discuss
  • Decide

That’s it. No matter how you dress them up, what MBA-speak you apply to them, it really comes down to just four fundamental actions. So grab a gin & tonic and let’s break them down a bit.

Create: Yes, create contains recreate, refine, revise, edit, rework, redo, scrap and start again, but really it’s all just create. Each scratch of a pencil, stroke of a pen, tap of a key, voice in a microphone, stroke of a stylus, excretion of plastic from a 3D printer- it’s all just the physical manifestation of what our brain can imagine. Create is turning darkness into light. Something from nothing. It is the most sublime things humans do. Treat creation with some reverence- it’s the best that we get.

Share: Whether you are walking down the hall with a storyboard, asking someone to lean over your shoulder as you take them through a virtual world, sending an email, printing a presentation (hey, it still happens), reviewing a forecast or balance sheet, chatting with coworkers or clients via Skype or conference call- the next step after creation is always to share your work.

Discuss: This is such a crucial part of the productivity process and one that, I think, still has the most room for improvement. Discussing what has been created, is still, I assert, best done in person, although many factors contribute to how often this actually occurs. So much of what we have to say to one another is not done with our words. Gesture, expression, nuance, energy- all function best in person. Email, the early hero of sharing, has sadly become, the ill-suited Goliath of discussion. The interminable discussion threads that travel around the office via email are the bane of all our existence and yet, we can’t quite quit them. They are just too easy to start and volley back and forth like a ping pong ball or a hot potato or sometimes- like a live grenade.

Decide: Next to create, decide is my favorite part of the process. I love to take action (which can be a liability, I know). Nevertheless, decisions can be made by groups or individuals and increasingly, we like to “believe” by data. Big data has become the darling of many decision-makers, though the smart money knows, that unlike sitting in Google’s self-driving car, few leaders would completely cede control of decisions to almighty data. Imagine sitting in that self-driving car completely blindfolded- how comfortable are you with that high speed trip on the Autobahn now? To decide is decidedly human.

Would you trust a self-driving car to make ALL the decisions? Data won't either.

Would you trust a self-driving car to make ALL the decisions? Would you get out of the driver’s seat and ride blind-folded?

Four fundamental functions. Create. Share. Discuss. Decide. Repeat ad infinitum.

The point of this is to say that there are no new activities being done at the office- which is a powerful insight because it frees you. If you are in the business of creating productivity, it frees you to focus on one area where you can make your mark- HOW. How these things are done is where the magic can happen. Where, dare I say it, the innovation happens. Strike down the idea of some new step in the process. Ban the idea of new ways to work. There is only Kaizen. There is only the continuous improvement of HOW.

Years ago, at Microsoft- I talked about how the company needed to focus on the mental models that people had in their brains. What I meant was, what do people “see” in their minds when they were doing these four fundamental activities? How much of a person’s brain did we own? The end game is to retain as much of the customer’s mental space as possible.

Before the digital age, our mental models were of physical things- paper, pencil, ink.

Before the digital age, our mental models were of physical things- paper, pencil, ink.

In Don Draper’s day, he might mentally envision a sketch pad or a notepad to capture an idea. He’d think about physical storyboards, the gritty feel of newsprint, or the silky feel of a magazine print between a reader’s fingers.

I would grind my teeth in frustration that no one seemed alarmed that the mental space once occupied by Word or Outlook or even PowerPoint was being cannibalized and consumed by Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, and YouTube videos- powerful technologies that did many of these things better. Microsoft dominated the mental space of most office workers and professionals. If they imagined it, Microsoft had the vehicle to move it from the intangible to the tangible. Today, an individual’s mental space is fragmented into a dozen or more, different platforms, with more competing for attention every day.

A software developer will move between his dev environment and the virtual product he is creating- perhaps a virtual sketch pad or notepad. Game developers will move between 2D code and the gorgeous, expansive worlds they create in AAA games. As a writer, I see a blank white page and care only about the fastest way to get my thoughts out of my head before they disappear. Swype, which feels like a cross between cursive and conducting a symphony, is starting to give keyboards a run for their money in this arena. I couldn’t have imagined that even five years ago.

If you are a technology company working in productivity, you need to get clear on which of these four fundamental activities you are trying to improve and then spend all your time thing about how. How. How. How. How. How can I decrease the distance between thought and action? How can I pull abstract ideas out of my customer’s brain? How can I improve sharing, discussing, deciding? How do I make it feel easy?

On the other hand, if you are a consumer of these tools, if you are in an industry that uses these tools to produce other things- lawsuits, drugs, movies, books, light bulbs- whatever, then you must think about how this piece of technology is improving our ability to execute against these fundamental processes? How is this helping me make a better light bulb? How is this helping me communicate with my customer more effectively?

In the world of productivity, the world of create, share, discuss, decide, there is no new step to be added to this process (though I’d love to hear your feedback if you have an argument to the contrary!). Don & Peggy would get along just fine in the digital office though they might miss their drinks & smokes. They would understand that there remains incredible opportunity for advancement. Even Shakespeare was wiser than he realized when he had Hamlet quip, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” Indeed, productivity is simply a nut to be cracked, with infinite opportunity for improvement.

Never thought I’d say it, but thanks Don Draper, for enlightening me. Cheers!

Blog Hoppin’: All the cool kids are doing it

Blog hops are almost as cute as hopping bunnies.

Blog hops are almost as cute as hopping bunnies.

A couple weeks back, I was asked to participate in a Blog Hop by friend, fellow blogger, (and namesake, for that matter), Jenny Gwinn McGlothern. Her blog, Mama Needs a Refill, is a blog dedicated to helping Moms “refill their cups” when they start to run low. As a life coach, retreat leader, writer, and mom (to name a few of her talents!)- she knows a thing or two about how each of us can refill ourselves, in healthy ways, when we start to run a bit low. And as evidenced by my last post, Coming Unglued, we all run a low on the reserves of patience, compassion, and understanding that are the currency of good parenting.

A Blog Hop is a chance to talk a bit about why you write, to show off a few of your friends, and hopefully introduce them to a wider audience. So, I’ll do the answering a few questions part and then get on to the good part of introducing you to a few of my friends and bragging about them a bit. 🙂

My Writing Life

I love writing- I love the act of it, the challenge of it, and the result of it. I am not gifted with a lot of other creative talents and I believe that the act of creation is an important one. To have made something that stands on its own in the world- whether a physical object, a piece of art, a song, or even the humble blog post- it gives you the kind of satisfaction that little else can.

I started this blog about a year ago as a creative outlet and as a chance to share my thoughts, stories, and observations. My biggest challenge has been with consistently producing content. Even one post per week is a hard volume for me to maintain- though I have recently rededicated myself to doing just that.

What am I currently working on?

Currently, I have a list of about a dozen solid blog post topics that I am working through- from the provocative (I have one on SEX brewing!), to the introspective, to the quick and easy book review- I have a bunch of great content lined up. The trick is to carve out enough uninterrupted time to do the writing. Along those lines, my kids are currently unsupervised in the driveway with the garden hose, a couple of winter sleds, and a galvanized bucket full of ice. Sounds like a party to me.

Why do I write what I do?

As I have said- I write because I love it. I also write because I like the idea of leaving a record of myself. All too conscious of the fact that our time on this beautiful blue marble is fleeting, I want to leave something- however humble it may be, behind. I am arrogant (or confident) enough to hope that my daughters will one day want to wander through my posts. As they grow and mature- there will be posts that offer them insight into the joys and challenges of parenting, how I thought about the world as a woman, as a friend, a partner, and an advocate for equality, tolerance, and decency in the world. When they are ready, I hope that they will see me as something more than a mom- as a whole human being. That kind of insight about your parents doesn’t come until well into adulthood- so let’s just say this is partially a written hope chest for them.

How does your process work?

Nothing fancy here. I keep the ideas for my blogs in Evernote and use WordPress as my publishing platform. I usually mentally compose my posts for a day or two before writing and then write for between 20 minutes and a couple of hours to get something on the page. I average about 500 words in 30 mins, though that’s BEFORE editing. And I could be a better editor. I am working to be as ruthless with the delete key as I am generous with inserting my “voice” into my writing.

Blog Hop Featured Writers

So- enough about me! Let’s move on to the fun part of introducing a couple friends and awesome bloggers that I think you’ll enjoy getting to know! I have added their blogs to the “blogs I love” widget- so it’s easy to check them out anytime.

The two women I am featuring- Gemma and Val represent two different types of friendships- both of which I value and enjoy tremendously. Gemma and I have known each other for nearly 20 years and have been sort of distant friends & acquaintances for most of that time. The thing I love about Gemma is her confidence, her way of seeing the world, and the way she has always carved out a life that is uniquely her own. I am so happy that through recent reconnections and shared interests in blogging, snow sports, and parenting as normal, human beings (vs. chasing the fiction of perfect parenting), we are once again orbiting in the same universe.

Val, on the other hand, has more recently become a friend of mine. Okay, full disclosure: we work together, but I couldn’t be more thrilled by it. Val is warm, thoughtful, creative, smart, funny, and crafty! I have so enjoyed getting to know her both through working together and through her blog.

The final thing I loved about this Blog Hop exercise is that each person needs to write their own bio– which is surprisingly hard to do. For many of us, it can be hard to “toot your own horn” and writing a descriptive, interesting bio for use in someone else’s blog is just the right forum for writing about yourself in a way that is not critical but celebratory! So, here they are, in their own words:

Gemma Alexander (@gemmadeetweet) loves stories wherever she finds them – in picture books, novels, creative nonfiction, in the news, on Twitter. She recently took the plunge from government staff writer to freelance, and currently writes for ParentMap, Three Imaginary Girls, and on her own blog at Whether writing for a client or herself, she tries to contribute to the pool of good stories in the world.

Val Portanova is a newly-(ish)-wed from a small town, putting down roots in a small city. She loves the simple things in life: getting up at sunrise, deep friendships, hitting the open road, and curling up with a cup of tea on cloudy days. When she’s not at the movies with her indie filmmaker husband, she’s at local thrift stores digging for treasure.  She hangs out on the web at There, she strives to create beauty, share grace, and write words of encouragement.

Okay- so, you’ve learned a bit about me and about a couple bloggers who are probably new to you. Check them out and see who they post about in a couple weeks! Thanks so much for reading and supporting me in this endeavor! Hop on, friends!

I can't get enough of that tail!

I can’t get enough of that tail!

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